4 months later, tenants at rat-infested Newark 'slum' finally getting help

By Laura Herzog | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on March 08, 2016

Mayor Ras Baraka speaks a press conference in November 2015, announcing the condemnation of the building.

 

NEWARK — Four months after promising to condemn a pair of South Ward buildings beset by rats, bedbugs and other health issues, the city is finally progressing toward moving dozens of families out of the so-called "slums."

On Tuesday, Mayor Ras Baraka announced that a total of 62 families residing in the 60 apartments at 2-18 Stratford Place will be granted Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing vouchers that will allow them to move into other federally subsidized housing in the city.

While no exact date has been set, the move comes several months after an initial press conference at the dilapidated buildings, when Baraka and other officials told the weary tenants they could expect to celebrate the holidays in a new home.

Baraka acknowledged the delay on Tuesday, but said late was better than never to get hundreds of Newarkers out of a building that has long been home to mold, drug dealers and a long list of building and fire code violations.

"Sorry it took so long," he told reporters and several residents gathered outside the building, "but we are going to continue to move forward to make sure that we redevelop this entire neighborhood."

Residents will empty the buildings, known as the Aspen Stratford Apartments, over the coming weeks, after which they will be sealed off to allow city workers to abate the "most dangerous conditions" inside, according to Baraka and Janel Winter, Director of Housing and Community Resources for the city's Department of Community Affairs.

The buildings remain the property of Virginia-based Realty Management Associates, owned and managed by Wayne and Denise Fox - who Baraka called "slumlords" during his press conference in November - and will eventually be sold to another developer. The building is expected to remain low-income housing.

Shortly after the November press conference, Wayne Fox filed a lawsuit claiming he and his company were being blamed for conditions in the building caused by crime and other social ills in the surrounding neighborhood, and accusing the city of attempting to "save face" by displacing residents.

Federal court records indicate that a tentative settlement in that case has been reached, though Baraka said conditions of the deal prevented him from discussing its terms.

"At the end of the day, I think it turned out well for us. The Foxes didn't get hurt," he said. "But ultimately, we're not interested in hurting (anyone). We're interested in making people whole here in Newark." 

Asked about whether the property was really "condemned" — a term that the city continued to use in its latest press release — Baraka said that it was not.

"They were declared 'uninhabitable.' There's a difference," he told NJ Advance Media. "If we condemn the property, what we're saying is that we are taking it from (the developers), and we didn't take the property. I think the wording, the language was used incorrectly... 'Uninhabitable' means people can't stay in the property... We didn't want to pay for it. If you condemn the property, you have to pay for the property."

Baraka said that the surrounding buildings would eventually be redeveloped as well, though those residents weren't getting vouchers now.

"It's just the beginning," he said.

Felicia Alston-Singleton, who advocates for tenants in public and subsidized housing around the city, said the vouchers signaled a long-awaited end to what had been a difficult few months for residents.

She claimed many were left in limbo after initially expecting to be in a new home by January, and now must scramble to raise money for moving costs and security deposits at their new homes. Baraka later indicated the city may provide some assistance with those expenses. 

"(The city) handled this poorly. It was poor communication," Alston-Singleton said. "They did not advise the residents what was going to happen until about two weeks ago."

Fahtima Abdul Karim, 32, who lives at 416 Irvine Turner Boulevard, and her younger sister, who lives at nearby 25 Johnson Ave., were at the press conference and also expressed frustration with the situation.

Karim's sister, who did not want to be named, said that she was told she would get a voucher in December.

"My stuff is still packed with mouses everywhere. Mouses everywhere. I'm tired of sleeping with mouses," she said.

Karim said that her building is also owned by Fox, and is also beset by rodents and other health issues.

"Ras Baraka is doing the best that he can, but he made promises," she said. "It was false hope. We was hoping to get out of this hood."

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